Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Roundtable 17: Civil Government

From the exciting topic of church ceremonies, to the boring topic of government. Well, okay, I've shown my prejudice. The biggy in AC XVI is to teach that "lawful civil regulations are good works of God." In other words, there's nothing dirty about them in themselves, which is not to say that we cannot abuse them the same way we abuse every other good gift of God. Because they are "good works of God" the Christian has full right to them: "to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by Imperial laws or other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take oaths required by the magistrates, for a man to marry a wife, or a women to be given in marriage." None of these things is in the least conflict with being a Christian; all of them can be engaged in with a good conscience.

Thus, the Lutherans were saying loudly and clearly at Augsburg (and since that day): "We ain't no Anabaptists!" For us, there is no flight from the civil realm - which seems to follow from thinking of the civil realm as "secular" - i.e., not God's! The Lutherans say "Balderdash! It is also God's, but under a different governance than the Church." That different governance is hinted at when we hear of the judging matters by "Imperial laws or other existing laws" and the notion of "just" punishments and wars. This all is grounded in the notion that God's way of dealing with the civil realm is through civil righteousness founded upon the law God has written on the hearts of all people. Pity that Melancthon didn't have Lewis' Abolition of Man at hand when he wrote, because I have no doubts he would have found it a concise exposition of the notion. Of course, back then both the Roman party and the Augsburg party took that foundation for granted.

The Lutherans also want to be clear that "evangelical perfection" is not found in running away from the civil realm - either to a monastery or in your new utopian community. Rather, "the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart." This righteousness of the heart does not require and demand the overthrow of the civil state or of the civil state's foundation in the family. But it does effect a reordering of disordered priorities. Obedience to parents, to government has its place, but also its limits. The limit is when in their sinfulness those in civil state or family would command the Christian to sin. Then, a higher obedience comes into play: "they ought to obey God rather than men." But unless and until such conflict between the will of God and civil or familial obedience arises, one obeys God also through obedience to the authorities. That speed limit thing, for instance. Mea culpa. But it's true, even if it seems trite: for Christians (unlike the world) see the very hand of God ALSO in the governance of the "civil realm." Thus, for us, there is no such thing as "secular" if that is taken to mean "not God's." It all belongs to the Blessed Trinity.


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Often discussions of civil government are limited to a discussion of its necessity in and response to sinful disorder.

A question I was discussing with my pastor recently was: to what extent did "government" exist prior to the fall? To what extent would it have existed in a populated world if there had been no fall? And finally, what government does and will exist in Heaven?

Are not order and hierarchy necessary even when sin is taken out of the picture? This seems to me a great starting point for a discussion of civil government. Once we more clearly see the ideal, we can then see how it must be modified due to sin.

Paul T. McCain said...

Nice picture, Doc, by the way. Great teeth.

My first comment/thought on this thread is to say that I think we also have to be careful not to suggest that government is a means by which God cares for our body and life.

American Lutherans have to take care that we not think there is one form, or style, of government that is divine mandated and the other not.

For instance, Luther instituted what was effectively a very effective welfare system in his community and expressed grave reservations about what today would be called a "free market" economy.

So, God does, and can, use a variety of government forms to provide for us. American just have to be careful not confuse legitimate debates over government programs with some divine mandate or "sin."

So, Lutheran Christians can rightly disagree on whether or not there should be a national health care system or a much more comprehensive welfare system and still properly confess Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, while taking different positions on these sorts of issues.

William Weedon said...

"I think we also have to be careful not to suggest that government is a means by which God cares for our body and life."

But LC III:75

William Weedon said...


I wouldn't say they are "necessary"; I'd say they are "natural." A reflection, if you will, of the ordering of the Blessed Trinity.

Paul T. McCain said...

Rats! I have an odd problem when keyboarding [which I do very quickly, obviously too quickly], I put a "not" in when it doesn't belong, or when trying to use "not" I spell it "now."

Please disregard the NOT. Not, the not, as it were!

Steven G. said...

It seems to me that Melanchthon makes this same point that government is not just there to curb sin in the Apology.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Yes, Pr. Weedon, that is what I should have said. Government/order is "natural" without sin and "necessary" because of sin. Thanks for the clarification.

Was not the divine economy established in creation, with vocation being the governmental building block of paradise? Even the angels have government, do they not?

The natural sinless order of humanity designed by God at the beginning of creation no doubt included the most basic form of government, the family, with husband and wife fulfilling their vocations, procreating and nurturing their children to follow their vocations according to the gifts God provides them with.

I envision the biblical government of an unspoiled human paradise being somewhat communist in nature with everyone contributing what he can and receiving what he needs, but also having the hierarchical pattern of a republic with those of greater or lesser responsibilities yet all being service-oriented, and most importantly all standing under the royal headship of "Christ the King."

Perhaps I'm going off topic here, but I think a view of civil government as God intended it without sin is a good perspective from which to look at what it must now do because of sin.

Certainly sin has spoiled every aspect of the divine plan, and we are thus incapable of living in the harmony originally intended. The law became "necessary" after the fall. Yet was there not a "natural" law prior to the fall (do eat this, and don't eat that). Law and order existed naturally prior to the fall, but became harsh curbs and mirrors after the fall.

Is not the third use of the law in a way a return to the divine legislative order (government) of paradise?

Does civil government only deal with the first use of the law (the curb)? Could government not also show us our sin and (even before the fall) instruct us in good works?

Would legislators, police, and armies have been necessary in a populated earth that never fell? If not, why is Christ called "Lord of Sabaoth?" Would not the children of God have required protection from Satan and his fallen angels? As for the law, would parents in the instruction of their young been the first legislators, serving as the mouths of God, handing down the divine ordinances of God.

The more I think about it, the more I think that almost every aspect of the civil government we now have need of might have been "natural" had there been no fall, though we can't easily imagine their forms. Because of sin these aspects became necessary, and for a different purpose - restoring order.

I may be speaking too speculatively for this roundtable, but hey! I thought I'd spice up this topic that Pr. Weedon was so worried about being boring. ;-)

William Weedon said...


Short answer: reread Perelandra. There's a world without fall, and the Lady is definitely Queen and Mother and everything else. Hierarchy without bullying. Because she knows her place in the ordering, she rules and truly rules as servant. Lewis was just brilliant on that as on so much else. He doesn't argue that that's how it was: he paints you a picture that shows it in action. And you say: How could it be otherwise?

Paul T. McCain said...

I think this article of the AC is a showpiece for the application of the wonderful Lutheran emphasis on the doctrine of vocation, that God calls human beings to a variety of functions and there are not "holier" callings than others. Thus, Christians can serve precisely by being a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker, and also as a judge, or a soldier, etc.

I've spoken with Christians over the years who do not have a proper understanding of vocation and so are burdened with a feeling that they are "sinning" when they must carry out a function of the civil government: such as a soldier fighting and killing in a just war.

Other Christians struggle with the feeling that unless, and until, they are physically present at their parish, serving on some sort of church committee or participating in a "church" activity, they are not "really" serving God when they are being a faithful spouse, parent or employee, etc.

This article, though brief, actually contains a lot to ponder and reflect on and apply.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Yes, Perelandra provides an excellent illustration of what I'm talking about. I read it out loud to my 11 year old daughter just recently (my wife and I read to all 6 of our kids before bed).

As I alluded to above, I believe the ideal government in a sinless world would be some mixture of just about every form of government we've experienced in this sinful world. This shouldn't surprise us since all government is ordained by God.

Winston Churchill may have put it best when he said:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. [Speech in the House of Commons, 11 Nov. 1947]

I think Luther would basically agree, as he never came down firmly on the side of any form of government as being perfect. They're all flawed, because we're all flawed. The same goes for church polity.

I would disagree on one point with Churchill. I think a true "democracy" is worse than a republic. Many forget that the U.S. was founded as a republic, and has decayed into the democracy we now have. I personally think in this sinful world that, at least when first established, a republic does the best job of blending all the other forms of government into a workable system for sinful people. But, as we have unfortunately found, Morgoth undermines everything we undertake on Arda.

I think the reason no form of government that has been tried thus far is perfect is because they are all just about equally subject to the perversions of this fallen world.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Pr. McCain,

That is precisely what I was getting at in my first comment. As I said, Was not the divine economy established in creation, with vocation being the governmental building block of paradise?

Vocation is the key to following God's plan. Vocation is what leads to family ("be fruitful and multiply, etc."). Intact families are the essential components of a well ordered society. And, as I continued above, with husband and wife fulfilling their vocations, procreating and nurturing their children to follow their vocations according to the gifts God provides them with, God creates communities and nations, with leaders and followers, all serving one another under the headship of the greatest servant of all, God.

Government in a sinless world would have been a natural description of the working out of vocations in the natural order established by God. Government in this sinful world, by necessity, now has to be preoccupied with correcting what happens because we do not perfectly fulfill our vocations.

The more government enables its citizens to fulfill their vocations, the more closely it approximates God's divine plan.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

How about this thought I just had...

Since all governments are ordained by God, he obviously doesn't have only one which he feels is appropriate for all times and places in this sinful world. Even evil governments are ordained by God for a righteous purpose. Just like law and gospel, the proper form of government is applied by God for a given situation in a people's history.

Paul T. McCain said...

As usual, it is interesting to see how the Roman Catholics responded to this article. Here are the comments about it from the Confutation of the Augsburg Confession, Rome's response.

The sixteenth article, concerning civil magistrates, is received with pleasure, as in harmony not only with civil law, but also with canonical law, the Gospel, the Holy Scriptures, and the universal norm of faith, since the apostle enjoins that "every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation," Rom. 13:1. And the princes are praised for condemning the Anabaptists, who overthrow all civil ordinances and prohibit Christians the use of the magistracy and other civil offices, without which no state is successfully administered.

Mike Baker said...

I also think that AC XVII delivers the First Commandment quite well. The entire text reinforces the idea that love, hatred, or fear of any earthly government should never become so great that it is placed above God in our hearts.

In the first part, fear or distain of governmental organization is rejected. In the second part, disobedience is rejected. At the very end, total commitment to government at the expense of righteousness is rejected.

Basically, all forms of political action and thought are reigned in and placed under God's authority. All of this is left nice and messy with few hard and fast rules... like only Lutheran theology can do.

Of course the Apology goes into a little more detail in terms of application and examples, but we aren't there yet.

wm cwirla said...

On the point of whether government is part of the created order of things or an accomodation for sin and a check on sinners, I would play the usual Lutheran both/and joker on this hand.

Luther derives all governing authority from the authority of Adam as head of the family. Also, in the table of responsibilities, he subdivides life under the three estates (Staende) of church, home, and civil society, in which all three are ordered under some kind of authority.

Paul T. McCain said...

I think Lutheranism eschews hypotheticals, so the whole line of conversation about "what if there had been no fall" kind of, well, pardon the pun, falls a bit short for me. What am I missing?

Paul T. McCain said...

Where did Fouts go? I'm wondering what to make of the Confutations claim that the Church's teaching on civil law is derived from:

Canon law
The Gospel
Universal norm of faith

What in the world does this mean? How are these four things the same, or distinguished?

Perhaps a bit off-topic, but it is an interesting insight into Roman thinking.

William Weedon said...

Couple thoughts:

I'm not sure that Roman Catholics would necessarily recognize the Confutation as an official document of their church. I suspect they'd say a decided "Jein" to it.

About the three hierarchies, I have always found Chemnitz' treatise on the angels fascinating in that regard. He speaks of devils that attack each of the three estates:

Der Kirchen Teufel (1 Thes 2:18)
Der Hof Teufel (1 Chron 21:1)
Der Haus Teufel (Tobit 6:7; 8:3)

Over against these God's holy angels strive for the good of the Church and God's elect.

William Weedon said...

And speaking of the three hierarchies, I find it interesting that the home sort of straddles the other two: it is operated under both left and right hand regimes. It is a fusion of church and state, isn't it?

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Pr. McCain,

I think it is important to point out that government naturally exists even where there is no sin, and also to attempt to trace the outlines of this heavenly vision. Government in our fallen world exists as a shadow of sorts cast by this divine ideal.

That said, I've said enough for now on the somewhat hypothetical train of thought I started. I was just trying to jump start this "boring" topic. ;-)


Paul T. McCain said...

Rats, where is Fouts when we need him? I believe that the Council of Trent ordered the publication of the Confutation, actually. Interesting that Rome waited until then to publish it.

Rev. Ryan Fouts said...

Regarding the Confutation's statement that AC XVI is received "as in harmony not only with civil law, but also with canonical law, the Gospel, the Holy Scriptures, and the universal norm of faith"...

First, the Confutation is not defining "sources" per se whereby the teaching of the Church is derived, but simply bringing forth the standards by which the Lutheran confession may be accepted.

The distinction is ultimately between "civil law," and the four following authorities (canon law, the Gospel, Scripture, universal norm of faith).

In the 16th Century there were two "judicial" systems going on. The "ecclesial" or canonical courts, and the civil courts. When one committed a crime, the crime would be adjudicated in one or the other courts. Thus, if a priest were to commit a crime, he was almost always brought to the canonical courts rather than the civil courts. If a crime somehow involved a member of the clergy -- either as perpetrator or victim -- I believe the canonical courts adjudicated the matter. I'm not sure at the moment how the distinction parsed out exactly, but for the most part, a lot of what was handled in the canonical courts, adjudicated according to canonical law, were things that we would most often associate with the "left hand" kingdom, or things that ought to be dealt with in the civil courts. Nonetheless, both "orders" or "courts" were considered to be doing the will of God. Thus, in this respect, the Confutation sees no contradiction in their practice with that of AC XVI.

As to the others -- the Gospel is distinguished from Scripture as we would also do -- but probably in a slightly different way. The Gospel is the "teaching" that is discerned both from Scripture, and from the authority of the rule of faith.